The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the “natural desire” of incarcerated people to seek their release from confinement. See Conn. Bd. of Pardons v. Dumschat, 452 U.S. 458, 464 (1981). Wyoming law allows inmates to file motions to reduce, correct, or otherwise modify their terms of incarceration pursuant to Rule 35 of the Wyoming Rules of Criminal Procedure. However, inmates have another, much narrower option for similar relief.
“Clemency” means mercy or leniency. An inmate may apply for clemency from the Wyoming Governor to seek release from incarceration or, at least, a reduction in his or her term of incarceration.
Clemency from the Governor comes in two forms: (1) pardons and (2) commutations. A pardon “is a full release ‘from the legal consequences of a specific crime.'” Bird v. Wyo. Bd. of Parole, 2016 WY 100, ¶ 11, 382 P.3d 56, 63 (Wyo. 2016) (quoting 59 Am. Jur. 2d Pardon and Parole § 1 (2012)). A commutation is “a ‘reduction in degree or amount of punishment,’ rather than a complete release.” Id. (quoting 59 Am. Jur. 2d Pardon and Parole § 5 (2012)).
While inmates have a right to petition for clemency, inmates have no right or legally recognized liberty interest to obtain any form of clemency from the Governor. See Bird, ¶ 14, 382 P.3d at 64; see also Weldon v. Gordon, 2022 WY 115, ¶¶ 14, 18. Clemency is simply “a matter of grace.” Bird, ¶ 14, 382 P.3d at 64.
Not all inmates may pursue each form of clemency. “A prisoner serving [any sentence other than life without parole] may have his sentence commuted by the governor and/or receive a pardon from the governor, at the governor’s discretion. Wyo. Const. art. 3, § 53; Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-301(c). A life without parole prisoner cannot have his sentence commuted, but may be eligible for a pardon at the governor’s discretion. Wyo. Const. art. 3, § 53; Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-10-301(b). Bird, ¶ 10, 382 P.3d at 62.
Because the Governor has complete power and jurisdiction to grant commutations and pardons at his discretion, no Wyoming court may review the Governor’s decision as to whether to grant clemency to any inmate nor may a Wyoming court compel the Governor to follow any certain procedure in handling commutation petitions presented for executive review. See Weldon, ¶ 17.
To begin the formal process of seeking a commutation, inmates must submit a petition for commutation to the Board of Parole. An inmate must have served at least ten (10) years prior to submitting this application and the inmate may apply once every five (5) years. The petition must be made in writing and mailed to the Board of Parole’s office located at 3120 Old Faithful Road, Suite 300, Cheyenne, WY 82002. The petition must include the reason for the requested commutation as well as “the precise modification requested; e.g., from life to a term of years, to run consecutive sentences concurrently, to a lesser term of years, etc.” See Board of Parole Policy Manual (2018 ed.) at 31.
You can review all of the Board of Parole’s current policies here:
Note: Please be aware that the Board of Parole is updating its policies and procedures so this manual may change in the near future.
The petition and copies of records related to the inmate’s offense and disciplinary programming and assessment records will be forwarded to the next hearing panel at the institution where the inmate is located. The hearing panel and the inmate will be given two (2) week’s notice for review prior to an in-person hearing with the hearing panel and the inmate regarding the petition.
If a majority of the hearing panel recommends initiating the commutation recommendation process, the hearing panel will sign a “panel commutation recommendation referral form” that describes the proposed modification, the rationale for the modification, and the vote of each panel member. The commutation recommendation will then be set for a hearing by all members of the Board of Parole at the next quarterly business meeting scheduled to occur after the expiration of a forty-five (45) day “notification and input processing” period, during which time victims, the sentencing court, the prosecutor’s office, and the Wyoming Department of Corrections Director will be afforded an opportunity to comment on the proposed commutation recommendation.
At the quarterly meeting following this forty-five (45) day notification and processing period, the full Board of Parole will discuss, deliberate on, and vote on the inmate’s commutation petition and the related hearing panel recommendation. If a majority of the Board of Parole votes to recommend commutation, as recommended, then the Executive Director of the Board of Parole, or his/her designee, shall forward the Board’s recommendation to the Governor along with a draft Grant of Commutation. The Governor will then have the choice to adopt the recommendation and grant the commutation or reject it. Following denial of a recommended commutation by the Governor, the Board of Parole shall not make another recommendation for that inmate for a period of five (5) years from the date of denial or until a new Governor is in office, whichever is sooner, unless extraordinary circumstances are presented which merit an earlier recommendation.
Arguably, this same process would apply for an inmate sentenced to death who seeks a commutation to life without parole. However, this form of commutation is recognized by Article 3, Section 53 of the Wyoming Constitution as well as Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-13-807. Moreover, an inmate’s execution may be scheduled for a date preceding the ten (10) years of incarceration required by the Board of Parole’s procedures for seeking commutation. Thus, whether an inmate sentenced to death must comply with the exact procedures prescribed by the Board of Parole described above or may seek more direct relief is, perhaps, up for debate.
The process for applying for a pardon is less circuitous than the process for seeking a commutation. It is governed by statute–Wyo. Stat. Ann. §§ 7-13-803, 804. That statute provides as follows:
§ 7-13-804. Contents of application for pardon; notice to district attorney.
(a) A person convicted of a felony may apply to the governor for a pardon. The application shall contain:
(i) The name of the person seeking the pardon;
(ii) The offense for which he was convicted;
(iii) The date and place of the conviction;
(vi) Any subsequent arrests, criminal charges, convictions or sentences; and
(vii) Any pertinent information the governor may request such as parole and community correctional program records.
(b) The governor shall give notice of the application to the district attorney of the county in which the applicant was indicted or informed against at least three (3) weeks before the application is considered by the governor.
Still, an inmate should not expect relief through the pardon process. No pardons have been issued by a Wyoming Governor since 2011.
The bottom line is: “An inmate’s ‘expectation that a lawfully imposed sentence will be commuted or that he will be pardoned is no more substantial than an inmate’s expectation, for example, that he will not be transferred to another prison; it is simply a unilateral hope.'” Weldon, ¶ 13 (quoting Dumschat, 452 U.S. at 465). Still, inmates have a few, exceedingly weak tools available for seeking mercy–even if, mercy remains elusive.